There are over 200 men currently on Texas Death Row at Polunsky Unit. What wasn’t included in the text of their death sentences are the cruel conditions and punishments inflicted on prisoners and their families due to TDCJ’s policies for Death Row. Not only are these men automatically held in indefinite solitary confinement, many for over a decade now, but they are also denied television, educational classes, religious services, jobs, and regular phone access that many prisoners take for granted. As a further punishment, to not only them but also to their parents, spouses, and children, they are denied any contact visitation, even leading up to the moment they are taken(usually by force) out of the unit and to the execution chamber. This means hundreds of children are never allowed more than letters and visits through glass with their parent, and family members do not get to say a proper goodbye, to their often healthy loved one, before they are left with nothing more than a body to cry over. These policies therefore inflict punishments on people not guilty of any crime, and particularly innocent children. They are more than security measures, and even more than revenge on the prisoner. They devastate the families involved, torture the prisoners to the point of hopelessness, and increase violence and mental illness at the unit.
On Solitary in Texas:
What does solitary confinement mean? 23-24 hours alone in a closet-sized cell. No access to group recreation, but rather to outside cages, a few times a week. Their only physical human contact is with guards during trips in and out of their cells to visitation, showers, or recreation. Their meals go through a slot in their door. Prisoners must yell to communicate with each other, creating endless noise bouncing off their walls which many say only adds to the psychological effects of being caged in. This is the policy no matter how well behaved they are, allegedly for safety and security reasons.
“Texas has perhaps the harshest death row conditions in the country. Most states keep death row prisoners in permanent solitary confinement. But Texas is one of two states—Oklahoma is the other—that doesn’t allow death row inmates to watch television, according to a survey by the Northwestern University Law School. Eleven states permit contact visits with death row prisoners. In Texas, contact visits are never allowed.”(1)
Do Texas’ policies make our prisons and communities safer than the states that allow more freedom? Studies have shown that widespread use of solitary confinement often increases violence against guards and increases the likelihood of future offenses for those returning to society. There is simply no rehabilitative function of isolation, and instead it exasperates negative feelings and behaviors, and mental health issues.
The Texas ACLU’s report “A Solitary Failure” outlines the numerous reasons that TDCJ’s widespread use of Solitary Confinement should be ended. These issues include ineffectiveness, high cost, increased violence, and increased mental illness. (2)
Texas does have a number of men who have left Death Row and can testify to the unnecessary cruelty of the policies. Many of them have adapted and shown they can live non-violently in their new units, suggesting the idea of ‘future dangerousness’ is easily disproven when they are given a chance, or have returned to society and re-learned life outside of cages after being exonerated.
“Anthony Graves was exonerated in 2010 after spending 12 years in mandatory solitary confinement as a death-row prisoner in Texas and now works with the ACLU of Texas. He described his prolonged isolation in an interview with The Intercept: “If you imagine what hell could be, that’s what solitary confinement is,” he said. “Every day. Every hour of the day. Day in and day out. It’s a system designed to break your will to live.”
He suffered from post-traumatic stress and feelings of abandonment and loneliness after his release, he said, but was able to eventually adjust due to a strong support system he had. Most prisoners who spend years in isolation, however, struggle to reintegrate into society.”(3)
Many of Texas’ neighboring states have made changes in their policies without negative consequences. The truth is that the majority of Death Row inmates are not excessively violent people, and may be less dangerous than many prisoners in general population. They are just as capable of rehabilitation and contributing positively to their environments and communities when given a chance, and are often effective mentors to younger prisoners or other youth from similar backgrounds.
“At least one state, Arizona, has since changed its policy, eliminating automatic isolation for its 118 condemned inmates. The Copper State joined California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, all of which changed their policies in recent years to allow death-row inmates more time outside of their cells, according to the Marshall Project. “(3)
As Texas increasingly becomes isolated in not only their love for executions but also their use of outdated and ineffective policies, there seems to be a question of how long before the courts, or prisoner organizing, demand and achieve changes to these systems.